Obama Fires Back at Putin: ‘I Believe America Is Exceptional’

He didn’t address Vladimir Putin directly, but he sure came close. In an address to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday morning, President Obama pressed the case for diplomatic responses to the Iranian nuclear program and the Syrian civil war. And he pledged that the U.S. will remain engaged in the post-Arab Spring Middle East ...

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

He didn't address Vladimir Putin directly, but he sure came close.

In an address to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday morning, President Obama pressed the case for diplomatic responses to the Iranian nuclear program and the Syrian civil war. And he pledged that the U.S. will remain engaged in the post-Arab Spring Middle East "for the long haul, for the hard work of forging freedom and democracy is the task of a generation" (Asia pivot? What Asia pivot?).

Then came the wink and the nod to Vlad.

He didn’t address Vladimir Putin directly, but he sure came close.

In an address to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday morning, President Obama pressed the case for diplomatic responses to the Iranian nuclear program and the Syrian civil war. And he pledged that the U.S. will remain engaged in the post-Arab Spring Middle East "for the long haul, for the hard work of forging freedom and democracy is the task of a generation" (Asia pivot? What Asia pivot?).

Then came the wink and the nod to Vlad.

"I believe America must remain engaged for our own security, but I also believe the world is better for it," Obama said. "Some may disagree. But I believe America is exceptional. In part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self interest, but for the interest of all."

The "some" who disagree sounded an awful lot like Vladimir Putin, who trolled Americans early this month by trashing the concept of American exceptionalism in a New York Times op-ed opposing U.S. military intervention in Syria. "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation," he wrote. "We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."

What makes Obama’s rejoinder (letter to the editor?) particularly striking is that the U.S. president has often faced criticism himself for not believing fervently enough in America’s exceptional character. In 2009, he came under fire for noting that he believed in American exceptionalism, "just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." As his opponents on the right embraced the buzzword, Obama frequently opted for the Clinton-era "indispensable nation" formulation for American greatness instead. The "president doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do," Republican challenger Mitt Romney charged during the 2012 presidential campaign. 

What’s more, as a presidential candidate in 2007, Obama explicitly came out against the brand of American exceptionalism he endorsed at the U.N. on Tuesday. In the shadow of George W. Bush’s discredited "Freedom Agenda," Obama told Roger Cohen at the New York Times, "I believe in American exceptionalism," but not one predicated on "our military prowess or our economic dominance." Instead, he added, "our exceptionalism must be based on our Constitution, our principles, our values and our ideals. We are at our best when we are speaking in a voice that captures the aspirations of people across the globe."

In his speech on Tuesday, Obama reiterated his commitment to defending American principles wherever they are challenged. But in defining his vision of American exceptionalism, he specifically included U.S. military prowess — or, as he put it, "a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self interest, but for the interest of all."

It’s a departure from Obama’s insistence as a candidate in 2007 on removing the United States from its war footing in the Middle East. Today’s U.N. address was about giving diplomacy a chance. But it was also about asserting America’s prerogative to take multilateral military action in, say, Syria, when it feels the cause is justified — especially when that right has been challenged by another world leader. As Obama put it, "the United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region."

 

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF

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